Must every student really become an entrepreneur?

University teaching should be refocused on promoting the common good, say Al Martinich and Tom Palaima

September 28, 2020
Students with graphs on their computers
Source: iStock

In the Flawn Academic Center of the University of Texas at Austin is a spacious room that is not devoted to academic activity.

It houses Blackstone Launchpad, which promotes itself as “a program that helps students of all backgrounds navigate the UT entrepreneurship ecosystem”, a pretentious way of saying “create a business”. “Why do we exist?” the initiative asks itself. “We believe entrepreneurship is for everyone.”

The centre is one of a network set up at universities worldwide by private equity giant Blackstone Investment’s charitable foundation. For Blackstone, charity means business creation; students are urged by Blackstone Launchpad to say proudly: “I’m an undergraduate entrepreneur.”

The best state universities were once institutions of higher education aimed at producing free, thoughtful and socially responsible human beings. The guiding motto of UT Austin is: “What starts here changes the world.” Students long came to develop their potential to change the world for the common good.

Universities now emphasise entrepreneurship for one main reason: money. State legislatures cut higher education funding severely over the past four decades. In 1984-85, 47 per cent of the budget of UT Austin came from state general revenue. In 2018-19, 11 per cent did. Universities turned to businesses for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” It was good business for businesses to fund professors whose research improved the corporate bottom line. At UT Austin, we now have a Center for Creative Entrepreneurship in the College of Fine Arts and “professors of practice” who teach about their own profitable businesses.

Let us return to the assertion that “entrepreneurship is for everyone.” Everyone? Really? Including electricians, farmers, soldiers, nurses, social workers, schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, psychiatrists, physicians, community activists, government officials, professors, librarians, computer programmers, landscapers, writers, actors, musicians and film directors?

Would we not rather free such professionals to be good at their jobs, undistracted by how to monetise or franchise them? Shouldn’t they be devoted to their families and mindful of the needs of their communities: what we used to call the common good? Shouldn’t they know the history of their country so they can work hard to avoid repeating egregious mistakes? Should they not have learned to cultivate, enjoy and share their own thoughts, interests and ideas?

The manufacturing and technological advances of the last century make it possible for almost everyone in the US to be free of the drudgery of maintaining life (even though a quarter of the population endures impoverished drudgery because of our irrationally skewed system of distributing wealth). Some of these advances were brought about by entrepreneurs, but most were made by dedicated scientists, technicians, engineers and production workers, and even by government mandates.

University students should study the entrepreneurial genius of famous figures like John D. Rockefeller, orchestrator of 1914’s Ludlow Massacre, in which local militia machine-gunned and set fire to a large tent colony of striking miners and their families, killing 21 people (Richard B. Mellon broke a strike with similar ruthlessness in 1925). They should read about the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which 10,000 armed West Virginia coal miners fought 3,000 militiamen and police who were attempting to prevent their unionisation, resulting in 100 deaths.

They should follow the many strands and many victims of entrepreneurism in the Enron, dot.com and subprime financial crises. They should read, in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, how Milo Minderbinder, entrepreneur extraordinaire, sends paratroopers to their deaths by trading the silk in their parachutes for North African cotton. Fiction conveys truths; Minderbinder’s risk-reward calculation was impeccable. Want proof? Read CNN Business’ final tally of the entrepreneurial profiteering during the Iraq War (at least $138 billion).

It might be better if most students forget about entrepreneurship for four years. Sure, entrepreneurship changes the world. But our future entrepreneurs need to acquire the social consciences, personal values and free minds that universities were created to instil. If university students change the world, they should do so for the common good.

Al Martinich is Roy Allison Vaughan Centennial Professor emeritus of philosophy and Tom Palaima is a MacArthur fellow and Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Refocus on the common good

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Reader's comments (3)

There is much to be said in favour of the points raised in this article, however the work I and others are progressing at the University of Derby is centred on 'responsible business leadership' linked through to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and as such we are looking to support entrepreneurs build sustainable, socially and environmentally responsible businesses. Dr. Peter Dewhurst Commercial Director University of Derby
I'm supportive of not promoting "start-up" to everyone and for every situation. However, I'd contend that every student (regardless of career path) needs to learn to be self directed in creating value in uncertain times and with limited resources, that is they need to learn to be entrepreneurial. More on this thinking here: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6716847595488202752/
Be careful what you wish for ... Donald Trump is identified by many as being an entrepreneur!! It's possible to demonstrate to an aspirational individual, formally and administratively, how to create a business inside a few hours. Thereafter it's gratuitous to even attempt to pretend how to make such a business a success. Business schools have pretended to know how to build the path to success by delving in to the nonsense they call entrepreneurship; an attribute which can neither be defined nor explained. My business school colleagues tell me that 80% of new businesses fail in their first year; what is unequivocal is that aspirational individuals fail, not the businesses they create. It is totally equivocal why they fail however. It's good business to get individuals to pay to be shown how to create the successful business and then to get them to pay to be told why it's failed. This loop is indeed entrepreneurial, and is a good example of a rigged game. But such activity is unethical. It would be edifying to imagine a global educational system which focuses on education and not training ... there is a huge difference between the two. Al Martinich and Tom Palaima are correct in advancing views which put education at the heart of any community; even an honest attempt at building entrepreneurship in undergraduate and graduate students is simply fraudulent: and, by definition, anti-community.

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